A young British couple, a Swedish secretary and a witty Polish history student are all sitting in a funky red and black Trabant, discussing the pro\'s and con\'s of communism. No, this is not the beginning of a ironic joke nor a surreal road-trip movie (although they would both be really interesting), but rather an increasingly common sight in Kraków, Poland\'s cultural capital. To explain: the Trabant is a kooky, box-shaped car that was manufactured in East Germany between 1957 and 1991, and it was a celebrated communist era commodity that people waited 15-20 years to acquire. Today, these rattling cardboard-and-plastic-made contractions serve as a reminder of the difficult days of the Soviet occupation, but they have also managed to develop a “so bad it\'s good” cult status amongst younger generations of Poles and other Central Europeans. In Kraków, the enterprising Crazy Tours company has injected fresh life into these much-ridiculed commie cars by utilising them as tour-guide vehicles for a range of \'Communist Tours\' around the city\'s infamous Nowa Huta district.
“Tourists really enjoy the \'back to the past\' experience,” says 24-year-old Jakub Bialach (aka \'Crazy Jakub\') who has been working as a tour-guide at Crazy Guides since 2006. “Now that Poland is safe and civilised, people are increasingly interested in seeing, feeling and touching what it was really like to live in Kraków during the Soviet regime.”
The first alternative city tour organiser, Crazy Guides was launched by young, business-savvy Mike Ostrowski in 2004 in order to give a “personalised and communist oriented tours of Kraków that will get you off the beaten path and expose you to things you never knew existed.” The Trabant tours - populated mostly by British, Scandinavian and American tourists – take travellers around Nowa Huta (literally \'New Steelworks\'), a model communist district designed in the 1950s. The four-hour-long Communism Delux Tour (costing 169 PLN/ 33 GBP), for example, showcases the remains of socialist planning principles, Stalinist architecture and the super-sized steelworks that polluted the city through the reign of the dictatorship. The tours also feature a visit to an authentic communist apartment, lunch at a milk bar (where the factory workers ate lunch every day) and five different shots of vodka. “Sometimes people are surprised at what they see. They expect a rougher, darker and more depressing view, but we show them the real, somewhat sarcastic, side of the Communist era,” adds Bialach.
When communism crumbled across the Eastern Bloc in 1989, no one thought the symbols that instilled such vivid fear and outrage in people would soon make a commercial comeback. Throughout the 1990\'s consumers in Poland and other Central Eastern European countries collectively shunned Soviet products in favour of the new, mass-produced Western goods. But by the beginning of the 21st century, nostalgia and a newfound appetite for home-grown products brought a resurgence in old communist brands and products. Today, the growing fascination with the paraphernalia of everyday life under communism is a trend that embraces widespread forms of consumption.
Retro fashion is very much in vogue in Poland right now, from the crazy patterns of the 70\'s to the old Soviet military coats and fur caps of the communist era. To cater to the lucrative trend, a new generation of savvy designers now blend \'vintage commie chic\' with modern elements, injecting new life in products like plastic chairs, synthetic textiles and even laundry bags. In 2005, Swedish vodka company Absolut asked ten fashion designers from around the globe to brand the vodka\'s logo onto hand bags, launching its Famous Collection of Bags. For this limited edition series, Polish fashion designer team Aga, Pshemko and Tomek Siereks came up with the idea to merge the country\'s omnipresent blue-and-red-checkered plastic laundry bag – famously lugged by the country\'s most elderly citizens, mostly on and off buses and to the shops - and decorated it with a large black handle in the shape of the renowned Absolut vodka bottle. In time, this retrolicious design might ignite a whole new line of handbags inspired by common Soviet-style sacks.
An on-going fashion fad for years, t-shirts printed with iconic communist propaganda images, funky logos and distinguished brands are the style mantras for fashionistas in the vanguard of cutting-edge cool. The prints, seen as forms of self-expression and identity validation, have popularised negative imagery, like the portrait of Marxist murderer Che Guevara and recognisable insignia of communist totalitarianism. The hammer and sickle, the five-pointed red star and the Soviet Union’s CCCP abbreviation have all jumped on the icon-wagon, objectifying the onetime symbols of grim oppression into something purely decorative. In Poland, communism is now much more of a fashion statement than a viable political system...at least among the country\'s young and trendy.
This is perefctly illustrated by Leszek, a 28-year-old dance instructor, who wears a Russian ushanka cap and occasionally flaunts tops with various Soviet-era symbols. “This heavy-duty hat has been in my family for over thirty years,” he says. “I wear it for purely practical purposes, as it keeps my head warm and ears covered even in the harshest winter weather.” The symbol-printed tops are a different issue. “My childhood was connected to communism so I know exactly what the red star and CCCP stands for, but I don’t see any harm in wearing t-shirts with these symbols in public.” He does acknowledge, though: “On the other hand, I would never let my grandparents see me in a red-star t-shirt, as it would probably really upset them.”
If you are keen to have some communist chic style for yourself, then go online. Beyond the red star logo, FiberyaPrint.com (www.fiberya.com) offers t-shirts bearing the profiles of Lenin and Fidel Castro and old propaganda slogans. Ironically, the prints are all categorised on the website under the section called \'komunó wróc\' (literally meaning \'Communism, please come back\'). Moda Mix (www.moda-mix.abc24.pl) goes a step further and found the CCCP and hammer-and-sickle symbol suitable for various toddler garments (click on \'mini koszulki\' to see a baby body suit for only zł.10!). What Polish parent wouldn\'t be proud to see their little one playing in the sandbox in a bold red hammer-and-sickle jumper?
Oldies But Goodies
The revival of products from the paternalistic state system’s period – in both old and new packaging – is another manifestation of the \'communism is cool\' fad. Going \'back to basics\' has major earning potential in Poland, where the older population harbours strong nostalgic sentiments toward products they got accustomed to during the forty-year rule of the Comminist authorities. For Poland\'s elderly population, capitalism has not worked to their advantage: they have been pushed aside and left behind and slipped between the cracks. For them, the \'bad old days\' of oppression and fear have become the \'good old days\' when they had steady jobs and free medical care – such as it was - and they long to recapture some of this nostalgia with items and services from the communist era. Thanks to this brand loyalty by Poland\'s oldest citizens, producers of items such as Ludwik dishwashing liquid, Inka coffee substitute and SDM table butter are still assiduously pushing forward and profiting, despite the growing invasion of competitors – both domestic and international.
Perhaps the greatest \'oldie but goodie\' coup took place in 2005, when Polish grocery stores witnessed the reintroduction of various processed meat products under the label “Wędliny jak za Gierka” (“Sausages like they were under Gierek”), launched by meat producer and distributor company, Stół Polski. The fleshy products bear the name of Edward Gierek, a politician who represents a time of modest prosperity for the Polish middle-class...and they are the consumer that the brand is now targetting. “During the numerous sampling actions we organised for our products, the 50-to-60-year-old ladies complained about the monotonous taste of all processed smoked meats that were available on the market,” explains Natalia Lewicka, marketing and advertisement specialist at Stół Polski. “That inspired us to produce meat based on an original recipe from the 1970s; we wanted to recapture that bygone flavour, one resembling the ones made in the ‘better days’ that are so close to the heart of our parents.”
The ideologically imposed utopian visions of communism were disseminated in very visual ways, with political propaganda posters being one of the most memorable (and one of the most internationally-recognised). Posters, dramatically displaying images of strong men and vigorous, childbearing women working the land of robust machinery, were coupled with slogans like \'Socialism, work, welfare, peace\', \'We work as a threesome, but we build like a dozen people\' and \'We will fulfill the six-year plan early\'. All hearty and heartening, all designed to inspire the populace to work for the greater glory of Communist principles and ideals...and all sources of derision and fear under the regime.
Today, however, these posters are seen quite differently: in recent years, propaganda posters have found their way back into mainstream media and advertisements, in addition to becoming sought-after collectible items as examples of communist art. Empik, a Polish nationwide chain of stores selling books, magazines, films and music, published an assortment of calendars with well-known propaganda posters. In one compilation, the January poster portrays a handsome young man sternly pointing to the public with the slogan reading “What did you do for the realisation of the plan?”, while the February placard shows a scary old man’s words of warning too-late realised: “Moonshine leads to blindness”. It\'s worth noting that in Poland, these calendars are selling like hot cakes.
Milking the Communist Cow
To get a sense of what it was like to live and dine during the People’s Republic of Poland (PRL), stop by one of the remaining milk bars (bar mleczny) for an affordable, home-made-style Polish meal. Launched by Communist comrades in the mid-1960s, these state-subsidised fast-food eateries served milk-based products to a broad cross-section of society, from the low-income workforce to students and pensioners. With capitalism came an overwhelming blitz of gastronomic goodies and a major cut in federal subsidies, both of which forced the majority of milk bars out of business. Insistence toward tradition, bargain prices, familiar fares and the enduring yearning for the atmosphere of a bygone era have kept a handful of milk bars alive; one of the best (and most faithful to its original spirit) is in Warsaw, and many tourists visit it to get the \'real\' milk bar experience.
Situated right next to the Warsaw University complex at ul. Krakowskie Przedmieście 20/22, Bar Uniwersytecki (University Bar) is the quintessential, must-see milk bar. Unaltered for decades, the décor boasts oversized photographs of cold-cuts and vegetables and plastic flower arrangements on the walls, while the uncomfortable red stools, brusque kitchen ladies in worn aprons, chipped plates and aluminum cutlery all just add to the nostalgic ‘charm’. The place is packed from morning to night with budget-conscious professionals, pupils, police and other types of people forking down pierogi, pyzy (potato balls), pyzy śląskie (dark dumplings), pancakes or a number of different staples of Polish cuisine.
At the other side of the scale is Oberża Pod Czerwonym Wieprzem (The Inn Under the Red Hog), a tavern-like restaurant in downtown Warsaw that claims to be “the last secret of the PRL” and which takes \'communist chic\' to a whole new level. According to the story, during the construction of the restaurant, workmen uncovered fragments of a damaged fresco depicting the images of Marx, Engles and Lenin, as well as a wooden chest filled with old army uniforms, medals and decorations. Although the \'findings\' are the result of a cleverly concocted marketing gimmick, the place stays true the spirit of the socialist system through both the interior design and menu, which is devided under headings such as “For Dignitaries and the Bourgeoisie” and “For the Proletariat”. Patrons can choose from creatively-named dishes like Kadar\'s Hungarian Potato Pancake, Mao\'s Chicken, Fidel\'s Cigars and Wild Boar Roulade a\'la Tito. Clearly, communism is now in vogue!
Text by Anna J. Kutor